Your tech impacts your mental health – here is how to manage it and keep your focus and sanity at work
If somebody had told me that the make or break of my success as a founder would be decided by my phone habits, I would have shaken my head and walked away. It’s just a phone, I would have scoffed at them, what’s your problem?
Our phones are our constant companions. We take them everywhere. And by everywhere I also mean *there*. Yes, the loo.
And it’s fun, right? The entire tech industry is on Twitter, constantly talking, posting, sharing 14-item-threads on the next big, unmissable thing. On the best days, it can feel like being inside the mind of a big hive that’s building the future in real-time. And the FOMO is real. What if you miss something? What if you miss a DM that connects you to an opportunity?
I, too, was a Twitter and Linkedin enthusiast. Before the pandemic, I was the founder of a bootstrapped travel tech company and a fellow in venture capital at the same time. I spent a lot of time online and on my phone at that time. There was always something to see, something to learn, and a new person to follow and connect with. It was exciting.
Add to that chat groups, personal conversations, the news, work emails, client emails (the realities of bootstrapping…), and the constant blinking of some corporate chat program a client of mine used at the time. Whenever its cheerfully urgent orange hue lit up for a notification, I dreaded it so much. Every time that happened, it reminded me of the things I was probably dropping the ball on and all the things that needed to be done not asap but yesterday – even when somebody on the team was just sending me a funny GIF.
I was tuned into what felt like the hum of the tech world together with the hums of my personal life, my company, and everything else that mattered.
The constant buzzing felt like drinking from the firehose of information. And what was refreshing at first – So much information! Available! Now! – quickly turned into a burden. It was all too much. And still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to keep up, keep refreshing, keep commenting, and liking. I felt tethered to my phone out of obligation, for support, and to keep my social life somewhat intact.
It was a lot, and I was feeling worse for the wear every day. And yet, I kept going, because I thought that’s just what it took to be a founder. That to make it, I had to make some sacrifices on the way. And that the path to success required me to show up and be online a lot.
The launch of our product to the world coincided with the start of the pandemic. Less than ideal timing for a travel company and it became clear quickly that I needed to cut my losses. When I realized I had to shut down my fledgling company, something entirely unexpected happened: I felt strangely relieved.
At the time, I was exhausted. Mentally and physically exhausted from what I thought I needed to do to live the founder life. Everyone I was seeing online, seemed constantly chipper, motivated, and go-getting, while I had my phases and ups and downs. In hindsight, I would say I was just human - and tired. I had worked grueling hours and overstretched my mind with constant input. It felt like my mind was filled to the brink, a bucket full of information that never drained – only, somehow, became denser and denser.
The summer I shut down my company, I took a long break and disconnected from the world. I spent this time in the small, pristine alpine village I had grown up in. I swam in crystalline lakes, made friends with a multitude of farm animals, and went on beautiful hikes. I worked as little as possible.
During all that time, my phone took a backseat. I relished the days, when I dug my toes into the pebbly beach at my favorite lake. I went there frequently to refresh my mind and body in its icy waters and took naps under the canopy of tall trees. I loved feeling untethered in a way that I had felt the last time when I was still in high school, pre-social media and pre-smartphones.
And little by little, my energy and focus returned. My time away from my phone, social media, and all notifications on my devices gave me a sense of mental acuity and peace I hadn’t felt in a very long time. It felt so good to be offline that for a while I chucked my phone into the far corner of a room like a toy I had outgrown and came to resent.
It was a wonderful, relaxing summer. The best I’d had in a long, long time. And yet, the question of how to re-connect with the world in fall loomed. I had to, after all, continue with client work and decide on my next steps.
Over time (and in all honesty this was a process of over a year of trial and error), I found out what I needed to do and how to do it, to be online and in the world for work and at the same time minimizing all the downsides I had experienced. Only when I stepped away from it all for that quiet summer in the alps, did I become aware of how deeply my phone and digital habits had affected my well-being.
They weren’t the only reason why I needed to take that long break. Yet, what I kept realizing in the months and years after is just how much they contributed to my exhausted state. Even now I notice that every time I get too confident in how well my digital habits are working and I’m letting them slide, I notice a dip in focus, motivation, and being able to get things done. A queasiness I can’t always place immediately moves into my life only to disappear again like a mirage as soon as cut down on phone-time again.
Our phones and how we deal with the digital world at large, can become the make-or-break factors in our success, if we don’t manage them well. If you want to be productive, move the needle in your projects, or create original ideas, it’s essential to know how to manage the constant avalanche of distractions that’s pouring into our lives and minds.
Three things are at the core of what I do (among others) to help me protect my mind and my ability to do the things I need to do:
1. I avoid multitasking as much as possible
Multitasking is still thought of as the ultimate skill in a busy, dynamic work environment. Be ambitious, get things done, reply to five slack messages and an email at the same time - and you’re kicking butt. Research in neurology disagrees. It turns out that we think we can multitask. What we’re really doing is switching between one task and five others, wearing our brain out in the process. And not just that; we’re treading water and don’t identify what’s important from the chatter around us, when we think we must deal with everything at the same time. If you feel overwhelmed and like you’re not getting anything done, it can help to remind yourself and retrain your brain to stick with one task at a time. You’ll be that much more productive – and you’ll feel more satisfied in the process.
2. I turn off notifications
Notifications can be the bane of our existence. Ding, chiiiirrrrrp, brrrr - it goes on all day, every day to no avail. At the end of a long day, it can feel like you’ve been pulled in a hundred different directions all at once and totally lost the plot on what you wanted to do. It’s stressful and deeply unsatisfying at the same time. Notifications are a way to grab your attention and move it to where somebody else wants it to be. Do you want to be there, though? It’s time to take your attention back for what you need it for – your work and your life. The easiest way to do this is to turn them all off, except the necessary ones. As a founder, leader, and somebody with aspirations for your career and life, you want to be the one who decides when to check for updates, not the other way around.
3. I reduce time confetti in my life
Time Confetti means that we cut up our free time into many small moments –for example when we look at our phone for a moment, then do something else for 10 minutes, and then check an email just before a meeting. At the end of the day, you end up feeling like you don’t have time for anything and that’s frustrating.
The concept of time confetti can teach us two things: one is to be mindful of how you spend our free time so you can recharge properly and make the most of your time outside of work. For a work context, time confetti can also show up when you schedule your day haphazardly without creating intentional times for different tasks and deep work. It can feel like you’re constantly busy, yet treading water all the time. One effective way to address this is to schedule times for deep work that help you create meaningful outputs that move the needle. It also helps to create intentional spaces of doing nothing. Not every 5 minutes before a meeting need to be filled with activity. It’s okay to spend those 5 minutes alone with your thoughts. Give your brain and yourself a break. You both deserve it.
I do these three things to protect my focus and create time and space for myself to think and do the things that need to get done. I’ve also chosen to stay off social media for work entirely.
Since that quiet summer in the alps, I’ve started two new companies (they’re also off socials). And I’m grateful to the lessons of that quiet summer in the alps that taught me so much: healthier habits for my digital life and the tools I need to be the person and founder I want to be in the world.
As much as I would have scoffed at you and the idea that my phone is a make-or-break factor for me as a founder: now I know you would have been right.
If you’re reading this and want to take away something for your life, it’s these three things:
- Turn off all notifications you don’t need and do it now that you’ve read this and are motivated to do it.
- Block time in your calendar for deep work as often as you can.
- Phase out multi-tasking. If it’s too challenging at work as a first step, start in your personal life, for example by putting your phone away when you watch a movie.